'Let The People See': It Took Courage To Keep Emmett Till's Memory Alive

21 hours ago

"Let the people see what they did to my boy." Those were the words spoken by Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, after viewing the brutalized body of her son.

During his night of torture near the Delta town of Money, Miss., 14-year-old Till's right eye had been dislodged from its socket, his tongue choked out of his mouth, the back of his skull crushed and his head penetrated by a bullet. At the insistence of his family, Till's body was shipped back home for burial in Chicago, and Till-Mobley specifically called for an open casket.

Day and night over Labor Day weekend in 1955, over 100,000 mourners, almost all of them African-American, filed past that open casket, which lay in state in a South Side church.

Before the funeral service, a staff photographer from Jet magazine was permitted to photograph Till's body, and those images were disseminated to other African-American magazines and newspapers, including The Chicago Defender.

But, as historian Elliott J. Gorn tells us in his new book on the Till case, the mainstream press didn't reprint those photographs, and of course, they were too graphic for television:

Years later, many white Americans remembered — falsely remembered — the epiphany of Till's ruined face in 1955. [But] few white people saw the photos until thirty years later when the documentary Eyes on the Prize opened with the Emmett Till story. Only then did [his mother's] words, "Let the people see what they did to my boy" begin to be fully realized.

Gorn's book is called Let the People See; like Timothy B. Tyson's 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till, it builds on new evidence discovered by the FBI in 2005 to present a detailed reconstruction of Till's kidnapping and killing in Mississippi, in retaliation for allegedly having whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

Gorn also dives deep into a legal analysis of the transcripts of the trial in the town of Sumner, Miss., in which Bryant's husband and his half-brother were tried for Till's murder. Both men were quickly acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury.

But what's most interesting about Gorn's book is his final section, called "Memory," in which he traces how Till's story, which seems so well-known today, came very close to "pass[ing] into oblivion." Gorn points out that in the two years following Till's murder, more than 3,000 articles about him were published. Then, "the whole of the 1960s brought only three hundred articles. In the 1970s, fewer than fifty stories appeared."

Just as disturbing is the fact that some of those stories, including one written in 1956 by William Faulkner for Harper's Magazine, relied on a paid interview with the two alleged killers that had been published in Look magazine. That Look story characterized Till as a defiant sexual aggressor. Going forward, Gorn says, the 10th and 25th anniversaries of Till's murder mostly passed unobserved, even in the black press.

It was the rise of African-American studies that helped recover Till's story, along with the widespread popularity of the 1977 TV miniseries, Roots, which proved there was a mainstream market for black history. In 1985, a Chicago reporter named Rich Samuels produced a half-hour documentary on the Till case, segments of which were later broadcast on NBC's Today show.

"For the first time in mainstream media," Gorn writes, "whites saw the photograph [of Emmett Till in his coffin]." As the image appeared on the screen, viewers heard the voice of writer James Baldwin who said, "It was myself in that coffin, it was my brothers in that coffin ... I can't describe it so precisely, because it had been so mutilated, it had been so violated. It was him but it was all of us."

Let the People See is a timely book about the fragility of collective memory and about the courage and persistence of journalists — particularly black journalists — some of whom risked their lives in 1955 to get the facts of the Till story before the public. Most of all though, Let the People See is a vivid reminder of just how easy it is for people not to see things they'd rather not see.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jonah Hill, became famous for playing a high school student in the comedy "Superbad." That was just one of his comedy films, along with "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Funny People," that was produced and/or directed by Judd Apatow. Hill received Oscar nominations for best supporting actor for his dramatic roles in "Moneyball" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street." This year, he co-starred in the Gus Van Sant film "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot," and he stars with Emma Stone in the new Netflix series "Maniac."

Jonah Hill just made his directing debut with the new film "Mid90s," which he also wrote. It's about a subculture of skateboarders in the mid-1990s, the period when Jonah Hill was a self-described not-great skateboarder but hung out with a group of much better skateboarders. The film isn't autobiographical, but it draws on his memories. The film is told from the point of view of a boy, played by the 11-year-old Sunny Suljic, who wants to be a skateboarder and be accepted by the older skaters he admires, who take life-threatening risks with skate tricks and stunts and spend the rest of their time smoking, drinking and trash-talking. The skaters are played by pros, but the skaters they play are unlikely to get anywhere. They have no money, no connections.

Jonah Hill, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the movie. What did skateboarding mean to you when you were in your teens?

JONAH HILL: I'm no ambassador for skateboarding. And skateboarding is so sensitive to being portrayed in film by outsiders, and that's understandable because it's often butchered. But when I was maybe 9 or so, skateboarding gave me a real sense of - and especially more in my early teens - gave me a real sense of community outside of my home and, I think, a lens that I ended up seeing a lot of life through, which is, you know, taste in music, clothes and treatment of authority and just a sense of perverse closeness. I don't know. It just laid an imprint on me.

GROSS: So the group of skaters who you were friends with or aspired to be friends with - what was that culture like?

HILL: It was a lot of different things, you know? I was always terrible. I always wanted to be great. I think I still would trade a lot of achievements for certain skateboarding achievements that just I don't think are physically possible for me at this point, at 34. I filmed a lot.

GROSS: Oh, you filmed...

HILL: I loved...

GROSS: You filmed the skaters. Was that your in? Like, you weren't going to be a great skateboarder, but you could...

HILL: No - yes, exactly.

GROSS: ...Document them? OK.

HILL: And I loved it. And it was - there were such bombastic personalities, such twisted sense of humor. Now, with a 20-year lens on it, having written this film, it really showed me, you know, a lot of what I think was great about it and what are things that I had to and people from that time had to unlearn.

GROSS: What are some of the things...

HILL: And...

GROSS: ...You felt you had to unlearn from that culture?

HILL: The way people spoke to one another and what they said to one another, especially in regards to homophobia and toxic masculinity.

GROSS: Like, there's a scene where the kid in the movie says to the slightly older kid, thank you. And the other kid says, oh, that's so gay; you can't say that. And then he starts...

HILL: He says, don't thank people because people are going to think you're gay.

GROSS: Yeah.

HILL: And the idea is that is something that a kid would've said to another kid, but how absurd and messed up is that, if that was the mentality or wasn't blinked at when things like that were said back then? That was a choice I made. Some of the language is really hard to watch for me. Some of the actions are really hard to watch for me. But ultimately, I felt it was more unfair to rewrite history than to show it as bluntly and as uncomfortable as it was.

GROSS: So, you know, in the movie, the young boy's mother is appalled at the scene that he's become a part of, and she realizes its dangers and the kind of disrespect he's being taught.

HILL: Well, I also want to clear - be very clear...

GROSS: And I don't want to sound like I'm condemning the art of skateboarding.

HILL: No, no, no. I also...

GROSS: But I...

HILL: I want to say - I want...

GROSS: I am condemning a certain kind of (laughter) sexism and disrespect.

HILL: Right, which is very deliberate, and the difficulty of watching it is deliberate at times. And, also, these young men are also very there for one another. And my point is that things aren't so black and white. People can do horrible things and still do kind things. People can do kind things and still do horrible things. These kids endanger one another's lives very seriously and then are also asleep at the hospital when they wake up. And I'm not judging these characters. It's not my job to judge them. I wanted to show, for better or for worse, how people spoke and behaved in the mid-1990s in this culture.

GROSS: So the teenagers who you cast as the skaters in the film - most of them seem like they're, like, professional skateboarders. They skate in competitions. They represent various companies. How did you find them?

HILL: There is a young man who worked on the movie named Mikey Alfred, who we made a co-producer, who owns a skate company in LA. And he brought a lot of local Los Angeles skateboarders in to audition - as well as I went to skate parks and did my own research. But a lot of these kids came from him being in the skate scene in Los Angeles and bringing in tons of people and, I guess, me seeing the potential for these young skateboarders as actors. I saw how bombastic, how funny, how smart, how damaged, how raw, how joyous, how painful the souls and lives are of the people that I noticed within this world, which made me even want to tell this story in, the first place.

GROSS: My impression watching the movie is that a lot of the lines might have been improvised, that you might've said, here's the basic stuff I want you to communicate, but say it your way - because, you know, a lot of what they're saying to each other isn't really about the content of what they're saying. It's more about the attitude. And there's a lot of expletives in it. And, like, some of it on the page would - it - do you know what I mean? Like, I wasn't sure if you were writing that out word for word or if you were saying, just, like, go with it, and then filming it...

HILL: Well...

GROSS: ...And editing it.

HILL: I take that as a massive compliment because that style of writing is so deliberate. And I wanted the kids to improvise, but they were obsessed with becoming great actors and becoming these characters and learning this screenplay. And for me, it took three years and 20 drafts to deliberately write every um and like and expletive with a reason behind it.

GROSS: Wow. Really?

HILL: And...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

HILL: Yeah, and that's very intentional. And that's - you know, capturing very realistic dialogue that seems improvised is a compliment to these young performers' acting and, you know, really deliberate thought in how these people speak to one another.

GROSS: Did you learn to speak that way?

HILL: Yes. I think I was taught - and maybe, culturally, we were taught at that time - if you're a man and you express your feelings, or you express that something hurts you, then you should be made fun of. And that kind of repression leads to anger, and anger leads to bad behavior. And I think I wanted to show a film about young men with an inability to express themselves.

GROSS: This thing is, like, you were - as a child and then as a young teen, you were writing, like, scripts for "The Simpsons" - not on a professional level, but you were just at home...

HILL: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Like, writing scripts for "The Simpsons." So you obviously...

HILL: Yes.

GROSS: ...Had both ambition and also a facility for words. You lived in a world of words. You wanted to communicate on the page. And I'm thinking what it must have been like for you to have this urge to write, to communicate, to make written jokes referring to pop culture with characters - and, I mean, that's what "The Simpsons" is all about - and, at the same time, feel like, but you're not supposed to express yourself because you're a boy.

HILL: Yeah. And I'm not victimizing myself. I think as a straight, white male, I have more privilege than I can even comprehend, right?

GROSS: Of course. Yeah.

HILL: But my...

GROSS: Nevertheless, you were kind of suppressing something that came really natural to you that you really valued.

HILL: Right. And I also - I have always been expected to be a certain type of thing, and I played right into that out of my own insecurity as a person. And I, as a kid, was very funny. I identify as a writer first and foremost in my life - after just brother, person, uncle, stuff like that. The first occupation I would list, it would be a writer. And then going into a culture where that kind of verbal communication or emotional communication is mocked - and then on top of that, you know, even when I became a well-known public figure, I think the duality of comedy and being overweight and all this stuff allowed for jokes and punches to be made about me and towards me, which turned me angrier, which made me communicate worse.

And then when you're funny, you become a bit mean, or I'll speak for myself. You think of the thing to hurt the other person 'cause you assume they're about to hurt you. It all plays into each other in this very weird cyclical thing, and then I became famous as an overweight comedian. And then I felt like I wasn't given the respect as a human being.

GROSS: A lot of humor is, like, self-deprecating humor, and self-deprecating humor doesn't go over in that kind of, like, teen masculine, like, athletic culture. I say this as an outsider to all of that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: But anyways, did you have an impulse toward self-deprecating humor but knew that that wouldn't be appropriate to the scene that you were in?

HILL: I think my point is - I'm talking even in my 20s, even going through a career publicly, going through my 20s publicly. Either being mean and defensive or self-deprecating to a point where you're beating yourself up to feel like you deserve a seat at the table are both unhealthy for me because obviously being mean makes you feel bad when you go home if you have a heart, which I do. And then - and being defensive, or beating yourself up gives you a real problem with your self-esteem. And the way I related that in "Mid90s" or tried to express that within the character of Stevie is this person's currency in his life is his ability to take abuse and to take pain. And I don't want to give away the end of the film, but the film, along with my own journey, has been a tremendous amount about self-acceptance.

GROSS: Though his issues are different than yours, and his way of resolving it is different than yours. But that's the core emotional issue that you're getting at.

HILL: Yeah, is that we all beat ourselves up. I explore male self-abuse in the film. It was something that I found, after doing a lot of research, very troubling and fascinating - literal sibling abuse - troubling and fascinating - and why skateboarding is a natural draw to someone who takes hits, whether inflicted from someone else or themself.

GROSS: Why do you think it's a natural draw for somebody in that position?

HILL: Because to be great at skateboarding, you have to be willing to slam on your face down 10 stairs on concrete over and over and over and over and over again. And there's something punishing about that and self-punishing about that. And there's a great reward that is truly earned, even if it's just for you.

GROSS: Were you willing to do that when you wanted to skate?

HILL: Very briefly in a time where, I think, I invited pain, but I quickly grew out of inviting physical pain in my life and more emotional pain to follow.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Good for you. Yeah, I'm not big on pain. Yeah.

HILL: The only scars were - the only scars were inside.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HILL: Yeah, the only scars were inside.

GROSS: Yeah.

HILL: And just a general recklessness, which I related to. And I related to this kid's loneliness. And so even though this isn't my story, I wanted to show someone going through deep pain and a real sense of hope through community, even if that community has deep flaws to it, like small-mindedness, prejudice, misogyny - that for this kid, it still provided something hopeful. And perhaps these young men will grow up and unlearn some of this stuff.

GROSS: Would you ever dream of getting on a skateboard now?

HILL: Yeah, I dream about it every night. I honestly, Terry, when I tell you - I would trade a lot in my life to be able to do certain tricks.

GROSS: OK, I shouldn't have used the word dream. Would you in reality...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Ever consider getting on a skateboard now?

HILL: I landed a kickflip in front of our casting crew in order just - A, out of being so excited and exhilarated by everyone skating but, B, to just prove that this is something that at one point was a massive part of my life.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonah Hill. And he's just written and directed his first film, and it's called "Mid90s." And as you can tell from our conversation, it's set among a group of skateboarders in the mid-1990s. We'll be right back, and we'll talk about some of the films he's starred in after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonah Hill. And he's known for starring in movies like "Superbad," "Moneyball," and "The Wolf Of Wall Street."

I want to ask you again about all those "Simpsons" scripts that you wrote when you were a kid. Did you ever try submitting one of them?

HILL: I know I wrote letters to the writers, and I never heard back. But I never tried submitting them.

GROSS: Would you be willing to share a story line or a joke from one of your early scripts?

HILL: Here's what I'll say, I think, the strongest episode was. I was a cinephile since a young age. And my parents were incredibly let's just say - how would I put it? - they encouraged me or let me watch movies beyond my age because they saw how interested I was in film, so perhaps ignored the content matter (laughter) of certain films that I maybe should've waited to see till I was older. So I had seen "The Godfather" at a really young age 'cause it's my dad's favorite movie. And I wrote a "Simpsons" "Godfather" spoof when I was probably like 9 or 10 that I think is - I was - when I went back as an adult, I was like, wow, that was - the analogies between the characters from "The Godfather" and the characters from "The Simpsons" were clever for a 9-year-old (laughter).

GROSS: Who was who?

HILL: Marge was Don Corleone...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HILL: ...Because as a 9-year-old, I was like Marge is so much smarter and quietly smarter than Homer. So she would be the chess player - sort of quiet low-key chess player that would become the don. No, excuse me. She's Michael. Sorry.

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK.

HILL: Marge is Michael. Grandpa Simpson is Don. He dies right away, though. So Marge is Michael. And...

GROSS: Wait, is Homer Fredo?

HILL: No, Homer - see, that would be - but that would make Marge and Homer siblings.

GROSS: Right.

HILL: So even in my 9-year-old mind, I knew that was not going to work. So Homer is Kay...

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: ...Like, the clueless Diane Keaton. Like, when are you going to go legit, you know? But Lenny and Carl, Homer's friends from work, were - Lenny was Fredo, and Carl was Sonny. And I don't know. I mean, it's not actually clever. But for a 9 year old, I was like, wow, it's interesting that you have the ambition or the - or even I guess the wherewithal to know who would be the a character equivalent of who.

GROSS: And to think about story and character in that way and to make connections between things, I think that's pretty great. What are some of the movies that were beyond your age as a kid that your parents let you watch because you loved movies so much?

HILL: I'll tell you a story that I find interesting because, I mean, I saw everything. I devoured film. Like, I continue to. I love it. So I ran through so many films. And I would go to the newsstand. And, you know, when your parents take you to the magazine stand, when you were a kid, and you flip through magazines - or if there's a magazine stand on the corner, and they're at another place or something, I would look through the film magazines. I was just so interested.

So I would ask them often, can I see this film? Can I see this film? And most of the time, they said yes. So basically it came down to two films that I wasn't allowed to see. They said, we are so lenient. You don't even realize how lucky you are. You cannot see "Kids," and you cannot see a "Clockwork Orange."

GROSS: Wow, "Kids" is all about kids similar to the kids in your movie.

HILL: And it's a seminal movie in my life. "Kids" was a huge influence on me as a filmmaker. But this film is the opposite of "Kids" where "Kids" so beautiful in its nihilism - and it's the world's ending tomorrow. Burn the world down. And this film "Mid90s" is all about connection and hope even if it's dysfunctional connection and hope. And those are the two movies I wasn't allowed to see. So of course, I made it my mission to see both of them right away. I think I was 11 or 12.

GROSS: How did you do it?

HILL: A friend of mine, who I skateboarded with who was older, had both cassettes at his house. And I saw "Kids." And I was like, I love skateboarding. I love New York. This is about kids skateboarding in New York. I completely was too young to understand the AIDS subplot - or main plot I guess. And so I completely wasn't affected by that. So I was just like this is the greatest movie I've ever seen in my life. It wasn't until I was older that I understood the HIV-AIDS plot part of the film because it went over my head. So I just took, wow, this is subversive, and this is dangerous, you know?

And then I saw a "Clockwork Orange." And I had to go to my parents, like a shell of a child, and be like you were right. I saw it. I'm deeply disturbed. And I need to talk to you because I was like - you know, like the last thing I wanted to do was tell them that I disobeyed them. But I was too shook up not to speak to them about what I had seen.

GROSS: What shook you up the most about the film?

HILL: I think the rape and ultraviolence was just to - of course, it was too heavy. It's so, so hard to watch as an adult, let alone a kid.

GROSS: What did your parents say to reassure you?

HILL: Well, first of all, they were like, you should listen to us because we're telling you this stuff for a reason. And then I of course didn't for many, many years and realized they were trying their best. I think ultimately it did make me braver as an artist in life because I do think about that. And I think ultimately there's something about me that draws me to things that are difficult. And maybe I'm uncomfortable with comfort. And I think my acting career says that when I really dissect it as well.

GROSS: My guest is Jonah Hill. He wrote and directed the new film "Mid90s," about a group of skateboarders in the mid-1990s. We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new book about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American whose murder in 1955 in Mississippi galvanized the civil rights movement. I'm Terry Gross. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANALOG PLAYERS SOCIETY'S "FREE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jonah Hill. He became famous for playing a high school student in the comedy "Superbad." He was in several other films produced and-or directed by Judd Apatow. He received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for his dramatic roles in "Moneyball" and "The Wolf Of Wall Street." He stars with Emma Stone in the new Netflix series "Maniac." And he's just made his directing debut with the new film "Mid90s," which he also wrote. It's about a subculture of skateboarders in the mid-1990s, the period when Jonah Hill was skateboarding.

So we were talking about loving movies, wanting to write and to direct. How did you start acting? And how old were you when you started to realize not only you wanted to do it but that you were good at it?

HILL: Well, I think there are two very different answers to that question. My goal my whole life was to be a writer and director. To say this is a dream, what's happening now, is like an understatement. And when I went to New School in New York, I would write these one-act plays. And we would often put them up in bars. And when I would have actors read, I had really bad bedside manner because I didn't understand why they wouldn't do it in the way that you wrote it. And my friend pulled me aside, really generously as a good friend, and was like look. Like, you need to learn how to talk to actors. They don't like - they don't like auditioning, you know. And they don't like working with you.

And so I took an acting class to learn how I'd want to be spoken to as an actor so maybe I could speak more eloquently and lovingly towards actors. And I was such an insecure person and I got such positive feedback in the acting class that it derailed me for 16 years (laughter) and in this amazing derailment, in this amazing education in film and film school and also finding a new expression that is another creative expression that I love.

GROSS: That's so interesting that you really wanted to direct and you took the acting class just to learn how to speak better to actors. That's weird. That's crazy. That's interesting.

HILL: A compliment can reroute you for 16 years.

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: You find the right compliment for the right insecure person and it could change a life indefinitely.

GROSS: Did you agree that you were good?

HILL: Yes. I struggle with taking compliments. My instinct is to make a joke or say no, but where I'm at in my life is I don't really want to be so negative towards myself and try and be kind to myself. And the truth is I did think I was good at acting.

GROSS: And then is it fair to say that you kind of found a different kind of tribe than the skateboarding tribe, that you found, like, maybe your real tribe with Judd Apatow's circle of actors and writers? Even though you weren't in "Freaks And Geeks," you were in so many Judd Apatow directed or produced movies. How did you become part of the Judd Apatow tribe?

HILL: Well, I met - actually the casting director I hired on "Mid90s," Allison Jones, is Jud's casting director, and that's why I hired her for my first film because she - she's the one who introduced me to Judd. After I did "I Heart Huckabees," I met some casting directors because, you know, I got, like, an agent off of that. And then Allison introduced me to Judd and brought me in to read for that little one line in "40-Year-Old Virgin" and - I don't know. Then I stuck around.

GROSS: So there's one specific line I'm going to ask you about because this line fits so well with what we were talking about before about having to unlearn a kind of masculinity and attitude that you hadn't learned in skateboard culture. And you might be able to guess the line I'm going to ask you about. So it's from "Superbad," which you starred in with Michael Cera, and you're a high school kid in this and, you know, you're not part of the cool crowd at all. And one of the really popular high school girls played by Emma Stone, who you now co-star with in the Netflix series "Maniac..."

HILL: I love her.

GROSS: Yeah. From a distance, I love her, too, (laughter) from the distance of an audience seat.

HILL: She's just as wonderful as a person as she is an actor.

GROSS: Good, good, good. That always makes me happy to hear. But anyway, she's going to be throwing a party while her parents are gone, and she needs somebody to buy alcohol. And even though you're under age, you decided you're going to get the alcohol, you know, bring it to the party and be the hero. And so you're trying to tell the Michael Cera character about this, and he's kind of skeptical that this is a very good idea or that you'll even be able to do it. And then you say - and I'm going to say, like, the really clean version of this because it's much too expletive laced for us to play this on the radio - but you basically say, you know how girls say I was so drunk last night I shouldn't have had sex with that guy? We could be that mistake. So, gosh, how does that sound to you now? I mean, women are so furious about how teenage boys and adult men try to get girls and women drunk or drugged to get them into bed.

HILL: I mean, it's literally horrifying (laughter). What a hard thing to hear because the idea behind that is this young man is hoping the young woman is so inebriated that her judgment would be so poor that she would make a mistake by sleeping with him. And that is incredibly wrong. And I didn't write that film. So I think comedy has a really hard time in the aging process because things that are funny at a moment or people might laugh at, as times change, that was never right, but for some reason, it was OK to make a joke about it at that point whereas, of course, it's not now. Hearing it now sounds horrific. How does it sound to you?

GROSS: Awful (laughter) but it didn't...

HILL: Yeah, I mean, it's...

GROSS: It didn't sound good to me then either. I didn't like the idea, you know, that kind of, like, disregard for girls or women. Just - like, that never sounded good.

HILL: It's upsetting. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter).

HILL: I mean, it's deeply upsetting. You know what? To be honest with you, I was 23, and I - not that that's an excuse, but I don't think I had the emotional maturity to understand that those words or that joke would be so horrible, you know, because that's the reality. I don't think I ever thought of that as a reality because it's not my experience. And so now thinking of that as a reality is very hard to hear.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, thank you for being reflective about that. So it's been interesting 13 years later after "Superbad" to see how you and how Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have evolved, you know, and the subjects you've all taken on since then because I think things have changed.

HILL: Yeah. And I literally can only speak for myself, and as an actor in that moment, I didn't see how hard that is and how ugly that joke is, but I don't want to speak for the filmmakers because this is such a larger, hard issue where a 13-year-old joke stands now. When I hear that, it's very disturbing, but I also know those people that wrote it, and they're really good people. So it's just so complicated. I never want to be hurtful to anybody - either side.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonah Hill. You know him as an actor, but he's now a director and screenwriter. His directorial debut is called "Mid90s." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "THE BALLAD OF DOROTHY PARKER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonah Hill. You know him as an actor, but now he's a screenwriter and director. And his directorial debut is called "Mid90s" and is set among a group of teen skateboarders in the mid-'90s.

You know, it's been interesting to, like, first see you kind of, like, come into manhood on screen 'cause you started in your teens. "Superbad," you were - what? - in your early 20s.

HILL: Yeah.

GROSS: And now, like, in the past, I don't know, bunch of years - five, six, seven years - you've started playing more dramatic roles, you know, in films like "Wolf Of Wall Street" and "Moneyball." How did you get the word out to film directors that you were interested in making the transition to more dramatic roles?

HILL: It's just by choices, you know. I had seen "The Puffy Chair," which I loved. And I reached out to the Duplass brothers after "Superbad" came out, and I was like, I would love to work with you. And they gave me this part in "Cyrus," which is a film that I love. It's - that was a great experience with John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei. And then - and Catherine Keener.

And then Bennett Miller was making "Moneyball," and Catherine had talked about me to Bennett. And then Bennett saw "Cyrus" and then cast me in "Moneyball." And then in the interim, I continued to do some comedy films that were funny and fun. And then I had heard about "The Wolf Of Wall Street," and I asked to audition. And I knew that was going to be a fight to get that part, but I knew I wanted that part really badly. And then when I wanted to write and direct, I think I had a lot of opportunities to do that if I wanted to make a mainstream comedy.

And when I really thought about it, I was like, wow, things in my life are happening that are intense, and am I going to be happy just doing what is expected of me or what my heart really wants? So I have to figure out who I am. I have to figure out how to love who I am, and I have to figure out what my voice is as a filmmaker. And when I looked to my heroes like Mike Nichols or Barry Levinson or people that started out in comedy and ended up having great filmmaking careers - I looked at their first films. And a lot of times, they came from a really personal place. And they weren't just funny. They were - they felt like life, and they felt like all the pain and joy of life.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene from "Wolf Of Wall Street," which was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Terence Winter, who was also the showrunner for the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." And so this is a movie that's based on the story of Jordan Belfort who was a corrupt stockbroker who made his fortune in penny stock schemes and eventually went to jail for fraud. And in this scene, Jordan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is in a diner. And he's approached by Donnie Azoff, played by you, who eventually becomes a business partner. But this is their first meeting. So you start the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WOLF OF WALL STREET")

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Excuse me. Is that your car in the lot?

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) That's a nice ride.

DICAPRIO: (Aa Jordan Belfort) Thanks, man.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Donnie Azoff.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Hey. Jordan Belfort. Nice to meet you.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) How you doing?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) You know, actually, I see that car around. I see it around a lot.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Oh, yeah. Where?

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) You know, I think we live in the same building. Yeah. Yeah. Twelfth floor, is that you?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah. What floor are you on?

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Fourth floor, guy with the little kids...

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Right.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) ...Ugly wife.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort, laughter) Yeah.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) What do you do, bro?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) What do you mean what do I do?

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) For work, what do you do?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) I'm a stockbroker.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) A stockbroker.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Children's furniture.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Oh, good for you.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) It's all right. You make a lot of money?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah, I do all right for myself.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) I'm trying to put it together. You got a nice car, and we live in the same building. I'm just - I'm not understanding. How much money you make?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) I don't know, 70,000 last month.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff, laughter) Get the [expletive].

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) No, I'm serious.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Yeah. No, I'm serious, too. Seriously, how much money you make?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) I'm - I told you. Seventy thousand - well, technically 72,000 last month, something like that.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) You made 72,000 in one month.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) Yeah.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) I tell you what. You show me a pay stub for $72,000 on it, I quit my job right now and I work for you. Hey, Paulie. What's up? No, yeah, yeah, no, everything's fine. Hey, listen, I quit.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) And he did quit his job...

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Yeah, yeah, no...

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) ...Which I thought was a little weird. I mean, I just met this [expletive] guy.

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Don't [expletive] tell Susan. It's none of her business.

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) There were other things about him, too, like his phosphorescent white teeth...

HILL: (As Donnie Azoff) Your wife - I got to deal with your wife?

DICAPRIO: (As Jordan Belfort) ...The fact that he wore horn-rims with clear lenses just to look more waspy.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. So that's a scene with Leonardo DiCaprio and my guest Jonah Hill from "The Wolf Of Wall Street." What did you learn from working with Martin Scorsese on "Wolf Of Wall Street?"

HILL: I mean, just, honestly, so many things. I guess the main lesson I learned was that it's OK not to judge your characters, to just show their behavior as people. And the characters in his films often do really ugly things. And you still find humanity in them. And I like how unabashedly and unapologetically he shows human behavior for better or worse...

GROSS: Which is something you've tried to do in your new movie.

HILL: ...Which is, I think, something that really speaks to me in art in general and something I'm going to strive to do if I'm lucky enough to get to make another film and something that I tried to do in "Mid90s." If we even want to loop it back to "The Simpsons," I mean...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HILL: ...Homer can be viewed as a terrible father, right? I mean...

GROSS: Oh, he's most certainly a terrible father (laughter). Yes.

HILL: He's - he could be viewed - but he also is this really loving, big-hearted person, right?

GROSS: OK.

HILL: So, you know, it's like - I guess I'm interested in the gray area.

GROSS: OK. So this weekend, this Saturday, you're going to host "Saturday Night Live," November 3. So I'm going to play an excerpt of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch that you - when you hosted in 2014. And it's the sketch that most took me by surprise. And when I say me, I mean me personally. So you played a 6-year-old who's with his stepmother...

HILL: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...At a Benihana restaurant seated at a communal table. And you're acting like this, like, 6-year-old insult comic with all the insults directed at your step mother, Dr. Debbie Wasserstein, who's played by Vanessa Bayer. And she's trying to make you stop.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

VANESSA BAYER: (As Dr. Wasserstein) That is inappropriate.

HILL: (As character) No, inappropriate is you listening to NPR on the drive over. Now my nightmares will take place in Syria and stalk Terry Gross. And hey, All Things Considered - maybe consider a kid is listening and throw in a train whistle every once in a while to hold my interest.

GROSS: OK.

HILL: (Laughter).

GROSS: Needless to say, I was so shocked and delighted to be namechecked by you on the show.

HILL: (Laughter) There are so many layers to why that is humorous to hear at this moment. It's just so funny. I think the idea of a little kid who behaves like an old insult comic - the whole thing was like he's, like, an old man, but he's still a little kid. So the fact that he has to listen to NPR (laughter) is incredibly boring to a kid, even though he's so aware to talk about the show with such detail and understanding. But that, actually - that character came about years and years ago. I did it the first - this is going to be my fifth time.

And I guess I hosted first for "Superbad," so I was probably, like, 23 or something. And I was at dinner a few weeks before randomly with Bill Hader and Andy Samberg and I think Akiva - oh, Seth Meyers was there. And Bill Hader told a story about going to a Benihana in his hometown. And there was a kid who he couldn't tell whether the kid was, like, 6 or, like, 40.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HILL: And when the chef did his trick, the kid leaned back and clapped his one hand against the table almost like Tony Soprano style.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HILL: And I think I just started doing the kid as if he was like an old Catskills comedian. And then that's where - when I got there a few weeks later, we were like, oh, we should try that as a sketch. And then we ended up doing it a bunch of times.

GROSS: Well, Jonah Hill, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's just been great to talk with you.

HILL: Thank you, you, too.

GROSS: Jonah Hill wrote and directed the new film "Mid90s." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new book about Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. The outrage that followed became a catalyst in the civil rights movement. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.